Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Book Review: Misquoting Jesus by Bart D. Ehrman

It's always intriguing when you go looking online for some more information about a book you're reading and you find that three - yes, three - books have been written specifically to argue against the conclusions the first book reached.  They even mention this book by name in their titles!

Dr. Bart Ehrman is a New Testament scholar at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  In his younger years, he identified as a born-again Christian who believed in biblical inerrancy, or the idea that the Bible is completely without error and as God intended it to be.  As Dr. Ehrman continued his religious studies, including reading various ancient Biblical transcripts in the original languages of Greek, Hebrew, and Latin, he came to believe that "the Bible, at the end of the day, is a very human book."  That's not to say that the Bible isn't inspired, that Jesus wasn't a real person, or that we should chuck the whole thing out.  He simply means that the Bible was written, preserved and compiled by dozens, or rather hundreds, of men - disciples, scribes, regular Church members, monks - who each had his own perspective and understanding.  Sometimes subconsciously and occasionally deliberately, this naturally affected the way they transcribed, translated, or selected from competing earlier manuscripts.  In fact, over 30,000 variations have been logged among various manuscripts and versions of the New Testament alone.

The book includes quite a bit of historical context for the reader.  It describes how the canon came to be compiled in its present form.  It provides an explanation of scribes and copyists; up until the mid-300s C.E., these duties were most often performed by amateurs.  Professional scribes didn't start working from early Christian texts until as long as three centuries after they'd been originally written.  Dr. Ehrman touches on the rich theological diversity of the second and third centuries after Christ: "the theological diversity was so extensive that groups calling themselves Christian adhered to beliefs and practices that most Christians today would insist were not Christian at all."  He also explores the effect that debates regarding the role of women in the church had on the biblical texts and how the opposition to Christianity from the contemporary pagan religions influenced them as well.  And he explains the myriad of ancient transcripts available for scholars to draw from today.

Dr. Ehrman provides an entry-level course in textual criticism for the layperson.  He uses example after example of passages that appear to be later insertions into the Biblical text and walks the reader through how scholars have come to that conclusion.  He highlights sections where earlier texts show a completely different meaning than later texts and describes the methods used to determine which is most likely the original intent.   At one point, he mentions that for the King James version that is so widely used, the translators frequently drew from Erasmus's edition, "which was based on a single twelfth-century manuscript that is one of the worst of the manuscripts that we now have available to us!"

I appreciate that while Dr. Ehrman vigorously defends the conclusions he has reached, he also emphasizes several times that "competent, well-meaning, highly intelligent scholars often come to opposite conclusions when looking at the same evidence."  Continuing on in this vein of giving the benefit of the doubt, he provides this perspective on the much-maligned scribes who inadvertently changed scripture: "They, like we, were trying to understand what the authors wrote while also trying to see how the words of the authors' texts might have significance for them, and how they might help them make sense of their own situations and their own lives."  That seems like a decent and charitable interpretation to me.

Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why
by Bart D. Ehrman
ISBN: 9780060738174
Buy it from Amazon (hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook).
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).

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